Originally published Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 7:01 PM

Minnesota museum and town revel in Spam

When you've never tasted Spam, there's only one way to prepare for the Spam Museum: Eat Spam. And the places to do that in this town of...

Chicago Tribune

If You Go

Spam's heartland

The Spam Museum: 507-437-5100 or Open daily with free admission.

It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free.

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AUSTIN, Minn. — When you've never tasted Spam, there's only one way to prepare for the Spam Museum: Eat Spam. And the places to do that in this town of 25,000 are plenty.

Steve's serves Spam pizza. Johnny's Main Event offers a Spam Reuben. Kenny's Oak Grill makes a Spam de' Melt — Spam, melted American and Swiss cheeses, bacon and sour cream (on wheat bread because, you know, it's much healthier that way).

To fully appreciate this Minnesota town's Spam Museum, it seemed appropriate to first try its signature food. How else could I understand the greatness? The history? The sodium (a mere 57 percent of a day's recommended intake)?

Austin is the home of Spam, the canned-meat product that turns 75 years old next year, and is celebrated in the 16,500-square-foot Spam Museum, a brick building in the Hormel Foods complex east of downtown.

Steps inside, a lifelong Austin resident named Jim, who wore a blue shirt stitched with the Spam logo, stopped me.

"You just walked through our great wall of Spam," Jim said.

He pointed above the door, where 3,390 Spam cans hung in a tight honeycomb.

"Those are real Spam cans, but they're empty," he said. "It would have been a waste to put all that Spam on the wall."

After posing for a picture with Spammy, a smiling, 4-foot-tall can of Spam with arms and legs and cartoonish eyes, I sat through a 10-minute Spam orientation film to learn that America's most famous meat has been "made with love since 1937." I was pretty sure pigs were the other ingredient.

Hormel, the Spam maker, obviously wears a bit of a chip on its corporate shoulder. Its first Spam-related exhibit was a three-dimensional graphic that read, "Whatever you've heard is in Spam luncheon meat probably isn't. Over the years many people have joked about what ingredients are in Spam."

"Most" of the meat in Spam, the graphic says, comes from "the front shoulder of the hog" — which conveniently leaves out where the rest of the meat comes from.

I turned around to find a family — the Caswells of Stockton, Ill. — in matching yellow T-shirts, the backs of which said: "Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam" (like the spam skit of the British comedy troupe Monty Python). To amuse their family of eight, Steve and Lori Caswell, both of whom grew up in the 1960s with Spam in their lives, invented a Spam festival in their town last year. It included Spam salad, Spam corn dogs, Spam in a blanket, Spam kebabs and, for dessert, Spam in a puff pastry with maple glaze.

Why does Spam engender such passion, such devotion, such ... T-shirts?

The museum does an admirable job of answering the question. One exhibit highlights Spam's explosive growth during World War II, when it helped sustain a nation and its troops. Another demonstrates its globe-conquering popularity.

A stroll through the museum makes clear that, love it, hate it or never had it, we are all familiar with Spam. Taking itself too seriously would be the death of the museum, but it does no such thing — especially as gray-haired women make the rounds with Spam samples speared on pretzel sticks.

I wound down my trip with a visit to Johnny's Main Event, where the menu includes Spam and cheese salad, a Western Spam melt and, yes, a Spam Reuben. I'd like to say I ordered a double Spam burger with a side of Spam, but I can't. I got a veggie omelet. It was time to start purifying.

Though he "loves" Spam, owner John Clark understood.

"I think Spam has an excellent flavor," Clark said. "But I don't eat a lot of it. I have heart problems."

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